On the morning of May 1, I enter Vancouver’s Broadway Church, home to a Pentecostal congregation better known for its annual Christmas show than its views on sexual orientation. I’m not alone. About 550 conference goers have paid $70 to $90 admission hoping to find answers to their questions about homosexuality.

I’m here to cover Focus on the Family’s travelling conference on homosexuality, Love Won Out. Focus on the Family is a Christian organization based in the United States with ministries in 18 other countries. Almost 16,000 people have attended 27 Love Won Outs since 1998. Last year’s Toronto event sold out.

In the crowded foyer, I meet Kelly Walker, Focus on the Family Canada’s public relations coordinator. It’s not the last I’ll see of Walker; two trips to the washroom are the only times I’m not chaperoned by her or a conference volunteer while at the church.

The media guidelines are strict. I’m told not to interview attendees or photograph their faces, and I sign an agreement to not attend two question and answer sessions in the afternoon.

Attendees seated in pews listen attentively as the first speaker, Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, a clinical psychologist from California and the president of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, tells them homosexuality is a gender identity disorder, rather than a sexual matter. Indeed, he asserts, it’s a psychological condition.

“We’re all heterosexual,” Nicolosi says. “If you’re not sure, look in the mirror naked some day; you’ll see that the body parts are designed in a certain way.”

The psychologist maintains homosexuality is rooted in early family relationships. The foundation of male homosexuality, he claims, is a hurtful relationship between a father and son.

“We advise fathers: If you don’t hug your sons, some other man will,” Nicolosi says.

A study by his organization found 500 articles linking homosexuality with self-destructive behaviour, he says. The good news, the psychologist tells us, is homosexuality is preventable and treatable through so-called reparative therapy.

Citing scientific research and anecdotes from his patients, the psychologist delivers what appear to be persuasive arguments to his overwhelmingly white, all-ages audience. Attendees frequently nod their heads in agreement and laugh at his jokes, which deploy a variety of generalizations and stereotypes about lesbians and gay men.

The next speaker, the witty and articulate Mike Haley, says he has been transformed from a gay activist to an ex-gay man who has overcome homosexuality.

As a teen, Haley felt compelled to leave his homophobic church and find acceptance in the gay community. Several years later, he says, the support of other Christians helped him leave homosexuality. Now, he’s married with children, as well as the manager of Focus on the Family’s homosexuality and gender department.

(While discussing his and his wife’s struggle to have children, Haley’s language reveals his views on abortion. “My wife’s post-abortive,” he says. “She’s killed two babies.”)

Haley says he hopes to change the language Christians use to reach out to lesbians and gay men because it’s often offensive. His message: only love, not hate, will solve what he sees as the problem of homosexuality.

“We need to have days like this more and more and more — where we can educate people about how do we accept the people without accepting the behaviour,” says Haley, who often cites biblical passages during his speech, “and I believe it can be done.”

Next, Melissa Fryrear, who says she’s overcome lesbianism, takes the stage. But I, accompanied by the public relations coordinator and a volunteer, sit down with Haley and Nicolosi for an interview downstairs.

Haley speaks first, challenging me to write a fair article that promotes tolerance, not division.

“We do these interviews all the time, and with the gay media, we tend to get slammed,” he says.

“What I’m seeking to do, and what I believe this conference is seeking to do, is while there’s difference between the gay community and the Christian community — some differences — we’re hoping to bridge a gap, and not further push one another away.”

I ask Haley if it’s difficult to find churches to host the conference.

No, he answers; churches belonging to many denominations have welcomed Love Won Out. He maintains the conference promotes understanding and compassion, and doesn’t fuel hate. But, Haley says, the conference usually sparks a protest in every city it visits, and he’s surprised by the absence of one in Vancouver.

“But oftentimes, gay activists will come into the conference, and one of the things that’s interesting — when they come in — they’ll say, ‘You know, hey, I didn’t agree with everything I heard, but the tone in which it was presented was very different than what I expected,’” he says. “So, we encourage the gay community to come.”

Turning to Nicolosi, I question the psychologist about his advocacy of reparative therapy, which is rejected by his own professional organization, the American Psychological Association, as well as the other major mental health institutions in the U.S. and Canada.

“I think for political reasons they discourage treatment,” says Nicolosi, who claims to have treated over 1,000 gay men.

“The scientific claims that they make to justify discouraging the treatment are ungrounded,” he adds.

The American Psychological Association’s lesbian, gay and bisexual concerns officer disagrees.

“We don’t think that it’s appropriate to make people think they ought to change their sexual orientation because there’s something wrong with it,” Clinton Anderson says by telephone from Washington, D.C.

That’s because reparative therapy, according to his organization’s official statement on the practice, is based on a discredited understanding of homosexuality.In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its manual of mental disorders. Two years later, the American Psychological Association supported its decision. Since it is not a mental disorder, the statement says, homosexuality requires no treatment.

“That decision,” Anderson says, “was grounded in approximately 20 years of research that had attempted to test the idea that homosexuality was a mental disorder and was unable to confirm that.”

But that doesn’t mean the de-listing of homosexuality wasn’t at all political, he notes.

“To imply that to identify something as political makes it not scientific is absurd,” Anderson says. “Things can be both scientific and political.”

Back at the conference, I enter one of the “breakout sessions” to discover an unadvertised talk by Dr. Chris Kempling, the Quesnel school counsellor suspended in 2002 for writing a series of anti-gay letters to a local newspaper. In February, the Supreme Court of British Columbia upheld Kempling’s suspension, and he decided to appeal the ruling to the B.C. Court of Appeal. Some attendees thank Kempling for standing up for their beliefs.

He tells us the proliferation of gay-straight alliances and the implementation of curricula supportive of homosexuality in B.C.’s public schools must be fought × albeit carefully.

“If you come across as a Bible-thumper,” Kempling says, “frankly, I don’t think you are going to be able to achieve your goal.”

As people leave the church in search of lunch, I stop a couple of attendees to ask them why they came to the conference.

“It’s such a controversy right now. So, I think it’s good to know what it’s all about,” says a thirty-something Burnaby parent, who would only identify herself as Mrs. Wong. “Also personally, I want to be here because a friend of mine has a sibling who has some issues.”

What would she do if one of her children were lesbian or gay?

“I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it.”

Focus on the Family plans to bring the conference to Winnipeg next year.